The Power of Different (Chapter 2 Added)

I have decided to add an aspect to my blog that is entertaining and unique - at least I think it is. While I slave away attempting to upload and clean all the data I would like to analyze over the next few years of my life, I wanted to add something to the blog that is more recurring; something that isn't just about sports, data, economics or politics, but something that could display the creative side of writing. I have decided to write short stories and books, one chapter at a time, and publish them throughout the weeks and months ahead. I am hoping this exercise will help me become a more descriptive writer. I may jump around from title to title and from story to story but I will try my best not to JRR Tolkein my audience. My first story is about a man who discovers in his late forties that his organs and muscles have not aged; he's gone almost all of his life without ever getting sick and he never understood why. As he discovers that he is special and his body has a way of rejuvenating itself, so do the doctors and nations most rich and powerful. He battles questions about what is right and what is wrong for him to do; would sacrificing himself be the right choice, or should he protect himself and his family at all costs from those who will do everything they can to obtain his "power." While he struggles to get through his everyday life - both professionally and personally - the world watches him like he was Truman Burbank, following his every move. He doesn't know who he can believe or trust and in the end, there may be no right or wrong answer.

Chapter 1

Can a blessing be a curse and a curse a blessing? It’s hard to say; it’s taken me 49 years to realize I was different – special as my mother always said. Looking back on it, I should have seen the signs earlier. When I was 6, I had my finger rolled up in a window by my nefarious sister – the bone was protruding through like a turtle peeking out of its shell, and the pain was excruciating. The following morning, I woke up to see a white scar forming over the previously open wound, which had now almost fully concealed itself beneath the skin as the bone had reset. Although my finger was stiff, the mobility would return entirely within hours.

When I was 11, I broke my arm playing football. Again, the pain permeated through my body like electricity through a puddle of water after a lightning strike. Following a trip to the doctor, I was told it would take me 6-8 weeks to fully heal and was given a hard cast to hold my arm in place. The following morning, I woke up and felt no pain. Over the next few days, weeks and months I would secretly remove my cast to play video games and even basketball with my friends; who asked how it was possible to be using my shooting arm just three days after breaking it. I never had answers but had always just assumed I was a quick healer.

Three years later I contracted Mononucleosis, an illness that had knocked multiple kids I knew out of school for weeks; even months! Following a trip to the doctor, and multiple tests, it was determined I had mono; My mother had assumed because I had been rather tired the previous two days that something was off. Just one day later, I tested negative; at the time I had convinced myself I had simply had it much longer prior to my doctors visit, and that my body had already beat it off by the time I discovered I had it, but the first hint that I was different came from the doctor's mouth that day I tested negative:

“Wow, I’ve never seen someone test positive at the rate in which you did and then negative a day later in my forty years in medicine. It’s almost as if your body had a blueprint to fight off this disease that no one else had access to,” the doctor said with a grin on his face. Science doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room for miracles, and although the doctor found the results to be baffling, he clearly was joking in his statement to me. I could see my mothers eyes roll nearly to the back of her head after the doctor said that.

“Oh, great doctor. My son already has an inflated ego. When he was younger, he was convinced he’d survive a plane wreck. Now you’ve just created Superman 2.0”

My mother was right, I did think rather highly of my ability to stay healthy. From 1st thru 4th grade I never missed a day of school, although my teachers would likely argue I wasn’t always “present.” For every year of my life, I can’t recall ever getting sick. The flu? Never had it. A cold? What is that? Allergies? Never heard of ‘em. I even ate a piece of raw chicken in college one time just to prove to my friends I was immune to food poisoning. I learned that the slimy and impenetrable texture, as I chewed on the chicken breast like a ball of Big League Chew, was off putting enough to make me vomit but the actual raw chicken itself had no impact on me. For much of my life I just felt I had been incredibly lucky. I had healed from injuries quicker than my peers and I never had come down with any sort of illness. It turns out, it wasn’t luck at all.

As father time continues to tick away the years on my clock, my joints feel every bit as old as they should, but my doctor says my muscles and organs haven’t aged past that of a 5-year-old. I’m sitting here in the doctor’s office as 49-year-old man with what should be an aged rusted engine inside my body, but instead sits a brand new shiny V8. My bones are as rich in calcium as they were when I used to think that Milk was essential for everyday consumption – I was 8 then. This is my fourth trip to the doctor’s office this week, and with each visit Dr. Gowen has requested I go to a different facility, with different equipment and tests because he can’t believe the results; “it’s got to be the equipment, we’ll head to Bellview tomorrow” he exclaims after another day of tests showing inexplicable results.

“I’m tired of tests Doctor. Let’s say you decided to accept these results for what they are, what does this mean?” I asked. “I’m clearly not invincible as I’ve felt pain before, and I clearly am capable of getting sick as I did come down with mononucleosis, so what the fuck is going on?”

You know how sometimes you ask questions that you know have no answer, but you still expect one? This was one of those times. For years and years, I have mocked those who believed in things they couldn’t see, explain or quantify. I now sit here in the damp and dreary florescent lit doctor’s office, unable to explain my own life. How did I not come to this conclusion much earlier? How did doctors miss this for so long? Does this mean I’ll live forever? Does this mean I’ll have to watch everyone I love die? Worse yet, what is going to happen to me? I’m basically a walking science experiment, and the rich and powerful would give anything to live longer. Heck, if you asked 21-year-old me if I wanted to live forever, I would have laughed at you for asking such an obvious question; OF COURSE!

It seemed like with each passing minute, another medical professional entered the room. The crowd was 15 deep at this point, and quickly growing. My doctor was passing around my medical results like a joint among a group of college friends; each doctor appeared more shocked than the one before.

“Stop yanking our chain Gowen, how did you get these results back? Did you use some advanced computer software or just shore up your Microsoft paint skills” one doctor joked.

“We got ourselves a real-life superman, let’s give it up for Gowen!” another doctor proclaimed as he patted Dr. Gowen on the shoulder the same way you’d pat your best buddy on the back after getting him with a good burn.

Truth is, I am not stronger or bigger than the average man. I’m 5’11, 172 pounds. I’ve never been much of a weightlifter, but there was a time in my life where I was fast and a decent athlete. Looking back on it, I never noticed but my teammates in high school and college – I’m a former bad baseball player – would complain of muscle soreness during our first few weeks of practice after a long layoff. That soreness was not something I ever experienced. Which is likely why I never understood the draw of steroids – I was always told it helped you bounce back quicker, but I never understood what you were bouncing back from. My muscles always felt as fresh day after day, and I never worried much about stretching. The only times I stretched as a kid was because coach made me do it. I get tired just the same as anyone else – I can’t run forever, nor can I lift weights without experiencing fatigue, but that fatigue dissipates faster than a spec of salt in Lake Michigan. Maybe I should have pursued a career as a marathon runner, or maybe I should have lifted a few weights? Nah, who am I kidding.

At this point, there are nearly 30 medical professionals in a doctor’s office whose capacity for comfort is somewhere between 4 and 5 people. When I entered the room initially I was shaking from the swift breeze coming from the ceiling vent, but now the room must be 85 degrees approaching 90. Everyone in the room has the same look in their eye as the creepy kids who enjoyed dissecting frogs in middle school anatomy class; they want to dig in and analyze me as if I was a donated amphibian who sacrificed my body in the name of science. I haven’t felt like this much of a piece of meat since I was backpacking in Wyoming and came across a grizzly bear salivating at my very presence. I had to get out of here, and fast.

“Thanks Doctor Gowen, I see you have a lot going on right now… so if that’s all you needed from me today, I’m going to be on my….” Before I could finish my sentence, I was cut off by Doctor Tolbert, who is not just the lead heart surgeon in the Midwest but also the President of the biggest Hospital Group in the country. He’s not an intimidating man, standing at just 5’6 or 5’7 and coming in under 150 pounds but when he speaks everyone in the room goes silent.

“Mr. Rhodes, we would recommend that you stay with us overnight. Just for precautionary observation and so we can run a few more tests to get a better understanding as to what is happening inside your body,” Doctor Tolbert says as the other 29 medical professionals nod along in agreement like bobblehead dolls in a tornado.

Precautionary observation? I’m sitting in an office surrounded by doctors who are astounded by my ability to recover and heal, and they want me to stay over night for “precautionary reasons.” What am I being cautious about exactly? In the back of my mind, I trust science and medicine and I don’t want to have any doubt about their intentions. All my life I have been taught to trust science, medicine and the system; After all, life expectancy has gone up over time for a reason. That said, my gut is telling me to run; the system isn’t set up to work for those who are different or unique. It’s certainly not set up to allow one man to have perceived super healing powers while others wither away from deteriorating muscles and weakened bones.

If I am special and I can help millions by experiencing pain myself, is it worth it? Can I trust these people whose responsibility and duty are to all their patients and to furthering the growth of medicine for future generations?

“Doctor, if I stay overnight will I be able to leave tomorrow? It’s my 25th anniversary with my wife, and while my muscles and organs say I may live forever, if I miss our dinner date tomorrow there’s a good chance I’ll be dead.”

“I promise you we’ll get you out of here tomorrow Mr. Rhodes. We would just like to take a CT scan and run further blood work. I know this whole thing is tough to process – it is for us as well – but we’re going to do everything in our power to figure out what is going on with you,” Tolbert said.

At this point, some of the doctors have taken their conversations about me outside of the room; I’m not sure if that's good or bad. I couldn’t help but notice the doctors were speaking to me in a way they would a terminally ill patient – I wasn’t dying, if anything I was getting younger with each passing day, but despite looking young for my age I can’t say my skin and face have never aged. I’m not Benjamin Button, and if someone makes a movie about me my character is much more likely to be played by Seth Green than Brad Pitt.

“Ok Doctor, I’ll stay. You show me the way; let’s get this over with.” I know in my mind that we’re no where near the finish line, but I’m willing to put my faith in the hands of Doctor Tolbert and the rest of his team. Only time will tell if this is a good decision or not.

"Follow me," Tolbert says, as he guides me out of the office and through the sea of doctors and nurses parting as if I were Moses and they the Red Sea.

"I'll follow you until you give me a reason not to Doctor," I said with a slight chuckle. I was serious, but didn't want the doctor to know I had my reservations. Data and science are the only things that matter when the inputs you're talking about aren't me, but as things become more personal the outliers become a much more likely possibility.

Chapter 2

We arrive on the fourth floor in a space that looks less modern than the stone age, and it feels like no one has been up here since then either. The dust rests inches high on every windowsill, piled up like ash from a recently erupted volcano. The lights are somehow even more depressing than the outdated fluorescent downstairs, but it may just be that so many bulbs are out it’s just that much darker. This isn’t the main hospital – it’s one of those suburban wings you go to when you want to avoid the drive all the way downtown. The fourth floor also happens to be the top floor of the building, which was built originally as a warehouse for storing extra rail cars for the CRT (Chicago Rapid Transit Company), and was remodeled in the late 1950’s and repurposed as a Hospital following the White Flight to the Suburbs. Nothing says health and well being quite like discriminatory policy in America. As I gaze out the window, I can’t help but think how much my life is about to change.

“What brings us up here?” I asked Doctor Tolbert.

“For whatever reason, we never got around to moving the CT machine down to the neurology department. When we originally bought the machines, we still had the department on the fourth floor but when we relocated them downstairs, we didn’t have the space in the budget to move the machines as well. Now we use this space for overflow and the machines.”

I find that fascinating. Hospital systems are more than willing to be overcharged for equipment and drugs at rates only seen in this “civilized nation” and in doing so, they not only deal with irate and irritable customers but minor inconveniences like having to venture into Anne Frank’s attic to give a patient an overpriced CT scan.

“That sounds like something you must enjoy. Being up here does have me curious, what are you doing here today? What brings you out to this location in the suburbs?” I asked Tolbert this question knowing very well that he was likely out here because of me. This was my 4th day this week at a new location, my reputation likely proceeds itself. Having been married to the daughter of a nurse for 25 years, I know firsthand that they love to talk, and among doctors it’s even worse. They pretend your medical issues are about research and advancing medicine, but everyone knows it’s just professional level gossip. They may not use your name, claiming to hide your identity, but when you show up at the hospital and everyone eyes you like you were a female actress and they were Harvey Weinstein, you know something is up.

“I frequently do spontaneous visits to all the hospitals in our network. Although I still am a practicing surgeon, my time is divided between that and administrative work. I just happened to be here today when Doctor Gowen briefed me on your situation.” He sounded sincere when he said it, but I wasn’t born yesterday.

“Interesting, and when you do visits you frequently give tests like CT scans to random patients that happen to be at your spontaneously visited hospital?” I’m not trying to challenge Doctor Tolbert; I just want to be able to trust him. In my non-medical opinion, he’s full of shit and he’s here today because of me. His inability to admit that is the first bit of water being splashed on the seed of distrust.

“I had heard about you Mr. Rhodes and…”

“Call me Cal,” I interjected before he could finish his sentence.

“Ok, Cal. I had heard about your results; obviously not by name. I had planned to meet with Doctor Gowen today, but I didn’t know you would also be present. When I spoke with Doctor Gowen, he told me he had asked you before speaking to me about your results. Is that not true?” I can’t tell if Doctor Tolbert is concerned about getting in trouble or concerned about me questioning his original answer.

“No no, he did ask. It’s fine… it’s fine. I just… I want to know that you’re not bullshittin… that you’re not going to lie to me. I believe you understand how unique this situation is, and frankly how dangerous it could be for me and my family, but I’m putting a lot of faith in you here Doc….”

“Cal, I get it,” he quickly interjects. “Why do you think I’m taking care of you myself? Why do you think I’ve taken on this responsibility? It’s very important that you are treated exactly as anyone else Cal, and it’s also very important that until we have more answers, this entire situation stays between the very few people that know about it.” He didn’t sound scared, but his voice vibrated with a hint of hesitance and uncertainty.

“I’m not the one who was passing around my medical file like flash cards at study hour! I haven’t even told my wife or my mother. I don’t even know what Is going on with me, so what the hell do I tell them in the first place!?” My frustration and anxiety are spilling out my mouth like smoke billowing from a chimney on a cold winter night. “If I didn’t trust you why would I be up here taking more tests, and when the fuck are these tests going to happen? There’s a baseball game on at 6:00 and if I’m going to be stuck here all damn night, I’m going to at least catch the game.”

In reality, we walked up here within the past three minutes and Tolbert is waiting for someone from maintenance to come up and let him in the room, because he doesn’t know the combination since he never works here. Who knew?

“It’ll just be a couple more minutes Mr. Rhodes,” as the tone of his voice has gone from casual and understanding to very stoic, calculated and professional over the past few sentences, I realize I am making him a little uncomfortable.

“Sorry about this Doctor, I’m wound up a little tight right now. It’s not like me to be a victim of my own emotions, but I have so many thoughts flying through my brain right now I need to hire an air traffic controller.”

The doctor cracks a bit of a smile as I hear footsteps approaching up the back staircase. The maintenance main proceeds to open the door and we walk in. Quite the stark contrast from the floor surrounding it, the room is spotless – sparkling like the bald head of Mr. Clean. The floors appear as though they were installed yesterday, and the machine is shinier than a freshly bought cue ball. The room was lit brightly with an LED light that had a bluish hue to it; it feels like I am walking into a scene out of Tron.

“Give me one minute as I get everything set up,” Tolbert said. “Once we finish this, you’ll be able to go down to your room and relax and unwind. Why don’t you head over next to the bed, this should be ready any minute.”

As I walk over to the machine, the room goes dark for a brief second; as the faint humming sound of what sounded like a microwave turning on echoed throughout the empty room. The surface of the bed is cold and lightly padded, with a slightly curved middle which causes my core to sink in deeper than my shoulders. Visually, I assume I look like a cylinder being ready to be shoved through a pneumatic tube, but instead of depositing money I’m depositing my brain. Just as I’m getting ready to lay down and rest my head on the rolled up towel the Hospital has made into a pillow, the door opens and in walks who I assume to be a male doctor, likely in his mid-30’s; certainly one of the younger doctors I have come across in the past four days. Although he’s not wearing his doctor’s coat, he has a badge pinned to his chest with his photo, the hospitals name and his name. “Dr. Brian Douglas” it reads. Unlike the other doctors, there is no identifying department or job title for Dr. Douglas.

As doctor Tolbert turns to look at who has come in, his face turns a pale white and he blurts out a sentence of broken English, “this is a test… private... the room is closed for… get out this patient deserves his time.” When I first saw Dr. Douglas walk in the room, I thought nothing of it but following the reaction of Dr. Tolbert, my stomach has that uneasy feeling you get when a roller coaster goes down a steep drop.

“Sorry Doctor Tolbert,” Dr Douglas replied. “I thought Colleen had called and told you I was coming today. We have been trying to contact you for the past three days, but we were told you were busy and would return our call. You never did so the Surgeon General called you herself to let you know we were on our way.”

“Yes, yes… I received some messages but as you were told, this week was not good for us. I am traveling and dealing with a lot of things. How did you even know I was here today? Who did you talk to? Listen, please wait for me downstairs. I am dealing with a patient right now.” Dr. Tolbert clearly isn’t happy that he is here, and I can’t help but think this entire ordeal is about me. Why else would the Surgeon General of the USA be here in this secondary off-site suburban Hospital?

“Why are you giving a patient a CT scan? Don’t you specialize in cardiology?” Dr. Douglas quipped back.

It was a good question, and one I actually thought about multiple times throughout the day. I had just assumed earlier that he is a trained professional in all areas, or that his experience as President makes him more capable in a wide array of medicine.

“I’m not reading the scan Brian, I’m just taking it. You don’t have reason to be up here, now please go wait for me downstairs. This has nothing to do with you.” Although I haven’t known Dr. Tolbert very long, there is a clear change in his tone as he communicates with Dr Douglas. It sounds like he is exasperated and overcome with anxiety; like a college kid being told what to do by his parents while visiting from Christmas Break.

Doctor Douglas leaves without even a shrug of the shoulders; it appears that his objective was accomplished.

“Sorry about that Cal, please just lay back and rest your head. This will only take a couple of minutes.”

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© 2020 by Erik Johnson